Farewell, Ben Gazzara…

4 Feb

Ben Gazzara (August 28, 1930 - February 3, 2012): in his long and distinguished career onstage, in the movies, and on television, the New York native helped break new ground with the likes of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Strange One, Anatomy of a Murder, QB VII, and An Early Frost.

I was saddened to open up my computer late Friday night only to find out that Ben Gazzara had passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 81.   I’ve long held the opinion that Ben Gazzara was/is the best–relatively high profile–American actor to have never been nominated for an Oscar. Of course, many of us boomers remember Gazzara for his role in the TV show Run For Your Life, in which he starred as a lawyer who finds that he has a terminal disease and chucks his workaday life in favor of one lived on the edge. Each episode saw Paul Bryan in a new setting, interacting with a whole new cast of characters. The show aired from 1965 through 1968 and was created by Roy Huggins, who’d already scored big with David Jansen’s instant classic, The Fugitive (though the premise of  moving the lead character from one locale to the next was hardly unique, having been explored with Route 66, among others). At any rate, Gazzara was nominated for the Emmy award two times for the series (not bad considering it only ran three years); additionally, he was nominated for the Golden Globe all three years of the series’ run. He earned an additional Emmy nod for his work in An Early Frost, a landmark 1985 made for TV movie about AIDS. In the film, Gazzara stars with Gena Rowlands as parents dealing with the facts of their son’s deadly illness as he (Aidan Quinn) finally opens up about his homosexuality. An Early Frost was a big huge, HUGE deal back in the day, igniting discussions about AIDS before the likes of such feature films as Parting Glances (1986), Longtime Companion (1990), and Philadelphia (1993).  Gazzara finally won an Emmy for the 2002 telefilm Hysterical Blindness, which also starred Juliette Lewis, Gena Rowlands (again), and Uma Thurman. Also of special note: Gazzara co-starred with Anthony Hopkins in the TV adaptation of Leon Uris’s novel QBVII, which was one of the first–if not THE first–mini-series to air on American television back in 1974, predating both Rich Man, Poor Man (1976) and Roots (1977). QB VII earned a total of 13 Emmy nominations, winning a total of 6. The title, by the way, stands for Queen’s Bench VII, which is the name/number of a English courtroom in which a lawsuit is being waged between a respected doctor, a “suspected” former Nazi surgeon (Hopkins), and a writer (Gazzara) accused of defaming said doctor’s character. Beats the hell out of the current onslaught of shit like The Bachelor, right?

Gazzara was also an acclaimed stage actor who saw some of his best known roles go to others when Hollywood came a-knockin’. He originated the role of  sexually ambivalent “Brick” in Tennessee Williams’s classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  but lost the role to Paul Newman in the screen version–a move which netted Newman the first of his 10 Oscar nominations (9 for acting; 1 for directing). Gazzara actually left Cat on a Hot a Tin Roof in the first year of its run, and then earned his first Tony nomination for 1955’s A Hatful of Rain. His character, “Johnny Pope,” was  subsequently played on the big-screen by Don Murray, who’d just scored an Oscar nomination for his work in Bus Stop opposite the one and only Marilyn Monroe. Gazzara’s other Tony nominations are for Hugie/Duet and a revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf  co-starring Colleen Dewhurst.

Some of Gazzara’s best known films include, The Strange One (1957), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969), Capone (1975), Voyage of the Damned (1976), Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981), Road House (1989), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), and The Big Lebowski (1998). He had a brief role in the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair starring Pierce Brosnan and Renee Russo. Gazzara also made three films for director John Cassavetes, Husbands (1970), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and Opening Night (1977), the latter of which co-starred, yet again, Gena Rowlands (aka Mrs. John Cassavetes). The actor also made two films for Peter Bogdanovich: Saint Jack (1979), and They All Laughed (1981). For the former, writer Danny Peary singled out Gazzara’s performance as the best of the year per the book Alternate Oscars (1993). The latter re-paired Gazzara with no less than Audrey Hepburn, with whom he shared the screen in 1979’s (unfortunate, I think) adaptation of Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline. Of course, They All Laughed was, is, and forever will be linked to the brutal murder of Bogdanovich’s beautiful girlfriend–and Playboy Playmate–Dorothy Stratten. I was fortunate enough to have been working at the old UA Prestonwood Creek 5 back in the early 1980’s when the production plagued film was given a brief theatrical run. It co-stars John Ritter and Patti Hansen, and is well worth viewing if you ever stumble upon it. Ben and Audrey are wonderful together. I think this is the movie in which I began seriously falling in love with Mr. Gazzara. I had taken him for granted prior to that.

Well, that’s about it for this entry. I’d just like to add that although I have not seen all of Gazzara’s films, and I know he made a few stinkers (Inchon, for instance), I can quite truthfully say that I have never seen him give a bad performance. I can’t say as much regarding the Academy’s most nominated male actor, Jack Nicholson (12 noms; 3 wins). Right? On the other hand, time and time again I find myself fixated on Gazzara, watching him and waiting to see what happens next. I do not know for sure why he never garnered one single Oscar nomination even with a fairly distinguished career that netted him plenty of recognition on stage and in television. Oh sure, there’s always a lot of political fol-de-rol, but maybe he was simply one of those great charismatic actors who was so good, and so selfless, at what he did that he made it all seem effortless, good and effortless…

Thanks Ben…

Ben Gazzara at the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001262/

Ben Gazzara at the Internet Broadway Database:

http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=41902

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